Valentine’s Day has proven to be a mixed-bag holiday for me. For one, it’s also my deceased maternal grandfather’s birthday. Aptly he was named Valentino (RIP, Tay). It was on Valentine’s Day 1995 when I asked out a girl for the first and third-to-last time. It’s the day I saw Eve Ensler’s brilliant yet regrettably often misdirected Vajayjay Monologues. Senior year of college, that year was spent feeling sorry for myself after being dumped by my college boyfriend. Then there was that time in 2008 I was stood up on Valentine’s Day by someone I had been dating. Aside for those notable tragedies, most of my Valentine’s Days were relatively pleasant, swinging back and forth from triumphant resiliency with other single friends to quaint understated romantic thingies. This year, the spinning bottle lands on travesty.
On February 1st, my father calls early while I’m on my way to work. Obviously, I’m hung-over and stumbling through the Safeway parking lot to the adjacent Starbucks when I get his ring. Though still in a half-wakey haze, I immediately have the sobering realization that he’s calling to guilt me for not having called him they day prior—it was his birthday! Then I hear his somber tone. Though I wouldn’t describe my father as an eloquent man, he never struck me as a bad communicator. In fact, like most fathers, he is largely laconic, but in the past whatever he wanted/needed to say, his words were free of mincing. That morning was different as struggled to explain to me in muddled medical terms a large tumorous growth the doctor discovered on one of my mother’s ovaries. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen or heard my father cry. I’m fairly sure he cried over the Celtics. I’m sure he cried when his mother passed away. Sometimes he’d cry after he hit me with a belt or his hands, the same kind of cry I occasionally hear from him when he laments on what poor choices he made in being a father. He is a good man—especially in conventional senses of the manhood. Masculine, strong, builds and fixes things. And whatever seldom occasion he sheds a tear, there are more of him being stoic or hot-headed. The chokiness in his voice that morning was a shade of sadness I had never heard from him. My father loves my mother.
I love my mother and anyone who loves me should know this: anything good about me, anything identifiable about me is a direct result of my mother raising me. Here are some visual examples.
My mother doing an impression of Chris Rock from the Black American cast of Death at a Funeral—her version of the movie was funnier.
My mother dancing to Alicia Keys’s Girl on Fire while holding a conversation and getting ready for brunch.
A photo of her dancing with gay activist vlogger, Tyler Oakley.
Avelina Andres Perez is simply the greatest mutha of all time. I have no shame and under no delusion when I say I am my mother’s favorite. Nor do I have shame when I say that I will never love anybody in this world as deeply as I love my mother. I am a card carrying momma’s boy. To understand our relationship I can point to two pieces of popular culture. The first is the children’s book, Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch. It apparently was featured on Friends, so you really should at least know about it. The second is the film The Deep End, starring the brilliant Tilda Swinton. Without giving too much away, she demonstrates a great deal of courage under fire managing the domestic stresses of caring for the home and two kids in Tahoe while the father is a way at sea. We learn through a series of flashbacks that her underage son develops a relationship with the manager of a gay dance club in Reno (Josh Lucas) which she discovers after they’re involved in a collision after a night of draaankin’. The film opens with Tilda trying to pay Josh to stay away from her son. Josh takes the money, but continues to see him anyway. Tilda’s fuckable son finds out that Josh swindled Swinson, so they get into an argument that ends with the son hitting Josh in the face. Dazed from the punch and after the son leaves the site of the altercation, Josh leans against a faulty rail and falls to his death onto a bed of rocks. The next morning, Tilda notices that her son is withdrawn and angry. On her walk, she discovers Josh’s body, assuming that her son had murdered him. Instead of confirming that this is in fact what happened, she decides to cover up the supposed murder for her son. Anyway, craziness ensues when a hot Croatian loan shark (Goran Visnic) enters the picture. I rented the film in high school, and afterwards told my parents they had to see it. The following morning, over breakfast, my mother, my father and I were discussing the film. I asked my mother if she would ever cover up a murder for me. Naturally, she said, Without a question. My father then uncomfortably says, But you guys would never murder anybody. My mother and I just smiled at each other from across the table.
She has not yet been diagnosed, but today, Valentine’s Day, is the day of her surgery. I’ve been a wreck all weak, and so has my dad. My sister is pragmatically pessimistic and ferocious control freak, which is exacerbated by the fact that she is the resident medical expert, actually being once a clinical nurse and now working in hospital informatics—she knows the numbers. I am not Christian enough to truly have faith in prayer, but I am just Berkeley enough to believe that intention can influence the symmetry of snowflakes. And maybe it’s good luck that the surgery is on valentine’s day and grandpa is watching over her. Please send my family good vibes. If you care about me or too are a momma’s boy, please keep a positive thought for my valentine this year.
Within me is an everlasting UGH. At the risk of sounding sexist, I have can’t-deal-with-white-people days how I imagine women have PMS, that is with mild to intense annoyance and regularity. This MLK week has sent me in a PDD-style rage with heavy flow realness. From a Russian artist who made a chair to resemble a black woman in bondage to an ASU frat throwing an MLK/black-themed party (those are only two examples), you can file the past few days under Crimson Tsunami.
But what really got my racially conscious goat was this essay from Though Catalog, “I’m Not Racist, I’m Just Not Attracted to Black Men.” It’s a piece that defends and articulates the type of insidious racism that posits itself as not-racism. That enables a casualness of racism under the protection of being completely natural. I don’t know how many times throughout my life I’m going to have to have a conversation about how “just a preference” is not a viable defense against sexual racial discrimination, but I’ve resolved to occasionally have to. A friend with whom I have not seen since sharing a suite freshman year of college but interact with often on Facebook, Mark Meisarah, succinctly debuncts at least the main points of Anonymous’s essay: That thing you “can’t explain” and feelings of being brainwashed are called white solipsism and hegemony you dumb drag queen.
Here I offer alternative, more accurate titles for the essay:
I’m Not Racist, I’m Just a Really Big Fan of Cognitive Dissonance
I’m Not Racist, I Just Don’t Understand How my Microaggressive Utterances on Social Media Perpetuate the Mechanisms of Racial Subjugation
I’m Not Racist because I have a Black friend, but He Has Low Self-Esteem
I’m Not Racist, I’m a Douche-Nozzle
I’m Not Just Racist, I Blog (anonymously) too
I’m Not Racist, and If Your Hand is Bigger Than Your Face You Have Cancer
I’m Not Racist. Trust me, I Checked My White Privilege.
I’m Not Racist, I just DON’T HAVE THE TIME to investigate or question my sexual proclivities because if it feels natural, it mustn’t be a socially constructed—albeit possibly hardwired—complicated matrix of unconscious rationalizations that very well may be a form of latent racism, as if “preference” isn’t an exclusionary term
I’m Not Racist Per Se, Black Guys Are Just Not M’Thang
I’m Not Racist, I mean, #sorrynotsorry if People of Color have to pick through the debris
So you walk up the steps to the balcony of the Castro dolled up with your best friend, late, then while combing the rows for unoccupied seats you catch a brief but all-too-inconvenient eye of The Ex (the one you went to Europe with, the one you lived with for a hot second) before finding two spots on each side of a tank-topped, raw-smelling bear with a trucker hat. He doesn’t move over so that you and your friend can sit together. You are now in the most perfect state to watch the world premiere of HBO’s Looking.
Looking is a show that follows the quotidian calamities of three friends, Augustín (from what I can glean, an installation artist or Urban Outfitters rack designer), Dom (waitron) and Patrick (adorable-as-f*ck video game designer). Thematically, the three are lost in some way: in the throes of negotiating an LTR, professionally and romantically stuck, generally hapless (respectively). Though Looking has been either praised or panned for being “a show about nothing,” let’s say that this theme is the engine of the series. To be more general, at its heart the show is character- and story-driven. Any show centered around gay men is a show centered around gay male desire, and perhaps, specifically, the show is about how the main characters’ faults are sublimated into sexual behavior. Which is terribly gay, and, incidentally, terribly human.
The first two episodes are directed by Andrew Haigh, writer/director of the critically lauded Weekend. The imperfect film is moving and tender, and Haigh manages to extract the most heartbreakingly human performances from his main actors with the exact amount and kind of dialogue needed. The pitfall of the film might be the languorous, weighty neo-realism shots that don’t move along the story—in other words, the film, only at times, can be film-school-y and just barely earns its feature length. The half-hour format of Looking appears to temper that particular directorial tendency in Haigh’s work, adding an urgency and lightness to the scenes. For instance in the first episode Haigh employs a cross-cutting between Patrick’s OKCupid date at The Presse (douchelandia) and Augustín’s threesome in a chair-fort he built in the Mission or West Oakland—not sure. This application of technique is brilliant in its counterposing of sexual misfires and sexual scattershots. It complexifies ideas of intimacy and distance. Both scenes involve a stranger (catalyst), we assume we will never see again. However, the role of the passerby functions differently in each scene speaking to Patrick’s or Augustín’s aloneness. But seriously. Do you know how real these storylines are?! Threesome in a chair-tent with a freshly tatted hipster?! Winebar OKC date?! SOOOOO REAL.
What’s more is how the successful cinematic treatment of UK Midlands in Weekend has prepared Haigh to give a true-y feel to the Bay Area. No establishing shots from Russian Hill. No color-saturated, triumphant Golden Gate Bridge partially engulfed by a blanket of smooth fog. No painted f*cking ladies. Haigh nails the grey but electric buzz of the neighborhoods. The messy and awkward layouts of Victorian apartments, green florescent ugliness of Muni, how bright and clear the Oakland docks can beam when driving over the Bay Bridge mid-morning, the serious danger of driving an old station wagon up a steep Noe Valley hill. Haigh’s San Francisco isn’t utopic, which is beautiful and refreshing and believable.
The writing, so far, is just shy of perfect. It’s self-aware but in a good way. At the beginning of episode two, Patrick boasts, I’m going to have a Mexican fuck buddy, then in the final scene laments he might be racist. I’d say at the very least he’s a fetishist. The doorman at Esta Noche and Latino love interest of Patrick reads the word “oncology” as awng-ka-gee. Dom, after a Grindr hook up, sighs, I’m such a cliché. The hook up is also true-to-life: twinkish (blond, svelt), dresses younger than he is but looks older than he is. This show is seriously too real. The characters teeter on the edge of stereotypes but manage to stumble away from them. Even the requisite fag-hag of the show, Doris (Lauren Weedman), Dom’s roommate, is novel. Instead of fashion-obsessed, sex-adjacent, gossip-mongering, homely, and/or fabulous, she’s an autonomous phallic presence in her scenes—like a sassy older brother. Full of advice and loving violence as she describes wanting to neck-punch your ex-meth-head ex or describing your indiscretions as fucking the pain away with the cast of Wicked.
The show is superbly cast. Never mind that I am obsessed with Jonathan Melchior Kristoff Jesse St. James Groff. His Patrick is naïve and awkward, as Patrick is written to be. The character, 29, has never been in a relationship for longer than 5 months. He’s clumsy in social interactions, in dates and even among friends. Groff is natural at this. You see his internal struggle with being eloquent or inoffensive in his effortless beat work and impulsive, real-feeling word vomiting. Groff’s inherent cuddliness, as argued by resident curmudgeon Tyler Coates, might be too undeniable, even if he was Hollywood-plain, but that’s the tragedy of being a gay male: that being Hollywood-plain or even Hollywood-handsome, one can still feel insecure. Go-go boys, LA caterers and Broadway ensemble dancers skew the natural curve. And in San Francisco, adorable millennials are, well, a dime a dozen. As a 29-year-old who has dated in San Francisco for the better part of his 20s, I say Groff’s Patrick is spot-the-f*ck-on.
Frankie J. Alvarez’s Augustín is delightfully nuanced. The character is wry but kooky, confident but ambivalent, loyal but wanton. Alvarez understands the dualities of the character, as does his on-screen multi-racial boyfriend Frankie, portrayed by O.T. Fagbenle, who shoots understated and knowing glares at his lover.
Murray Bartlett’s mustachioed Dom, for me, is the surprise runaway star of the show—but really the show only works as an ensemble. He is a resilient 40ish server who apparently has endured two waves of tech assholes and at least one abusive drug-laden relationship. You can read from his portrayal the gravitas of his 20s and 30s: how one can be the overly loving devout hero-nurse in a destructive romance, how finding oneself can become a rut (aka 90s slackerdom to millennial ennui), how casual sex is a rerouting of pain and loneliness but also a biological habit. The quiet and troubled indignant disposition he pulls off when he meets his ex for the second time in episode two is heart wrenching. Honestly, with all the buzz this show has gotten about how daring or realistic it is, the fact that they’re writing a holistically interesting 40-year-old waiter is breaking the most ground with me.
Like any show, there are problems. Questions of the visibility of Asian men, trans people and lesbians come to mind. Latino gay characters are hardly new hat in Hollywood, hashtag Birdcage and Philadelphia, but it is nice to not hear lispy Spanish accents. The beauty is that due to the nature of serial television, problems like that are not insurmountable. The show has room to grow and augment narrative-wise, and there’s a definite feeling of potential to include more stories. With a diverse and talented writing staff—John Hoffman, JC Lee, Michael Lannan and the like are FLAWLESS—I have no doubts that Looking will address its blind spots.
To be fair, a lot of my positive take to Looking might be colored by the fact that a good friend is a staff writer and invited me to the world premiere and subsequent open-bar after-party—the only circumstance under which you will see me at The Café. Or by my indefatigable inner fanboy of J.Groff. Or by the fact that I am Looking’s ideal viewer, late-20s Bay Area gay-mo. But really, I should be Looking’s toughest critic, because I do live in the universe they portray. And I’m f*cking good at spotting a fake. And so are the wonderful actors, writers and directors of color with whom I had the privilege of watching these two episodes. In the end, Looking is the real deal. It is serving up some real real realness.